We recognize that mental health is an important and sensitive subject. However, we aren't qualified to provide personalized mental health advice or counseling, and nothing in this article should be taken as a substitute for the help of a qualified professional. If you're struggling with your mental health, please connect with a professional who can provide the support you need.
There’s the old saying that we all know: Money can’t buy you happiness.
And while that may be true, having a stable financial life can definitely make everything much easier. In fact, there’s plenty of research out there that shows a distinct connection between financial issues and mental health problems.
It’s hardly a surprise. Worrying about how you’re going to cover next month’s bills creates significant internal anxiety and can even lead to serious mental health issues like depression and suicidal thoughts.
Whether you’re finding it hard to repay debt or your existing mental health issues have resulted in reduced work hours or even a lost job, climbing out of the spiral can feel like an uphill battle. But help is out there and, no matter where you are right now, you can find support and guidance to get you back on the right path.
There’s more overlap than you think
One of the biggest anxiety-inducing feelings that we can have around both issues is lack of control. This is particularly the case if you’re unemployed or maxed out on your work hours with no possibility of promotion or pay increase. If there’s no chance of more money coming in, what are you supposed to do when unexpected expenses crop up?
Similarly, many people who experience negative mental health symptoms often feel that they have no say in the situation, especially if they’re struggling to be taken seriously by medical professionals.
Where outward symptoms like an injury or physical illness will usually warrant a trip to the doctor and medication, it’s not uncommon for mental health concerns to be ignored until it’s too late. In fact, surveys have found that nearly half of adults with mental illnesses have experienced this problem with their own physicians.
The cycle continues for both mental health and money problems when you try to ignore them. If you’re already struggling with your mental health, you may find it harder to get a job. Without addressing these issues, your health worsens and your lack of income continues. As a result, your finances become a problem and that feeds your declining mental health. And so on and so on, the pattern continues until you feel like you can’t get out.
You’re not alone. In one survey, 72% of people said that their mental health problems had made their economic situation worse and, in the same study, 86% of respondents said that their financial situation had significantly contributed to their decline in mental health. So as you can see, it’s often impossible to break the two issues apart.
How does debt impact mental health?
Studies on the link between debt and mental health aren’t looking good. In a survey conducted in 2017 by the American Psychological Association, money was ranked as the second biggest stressor in the lives of Americans, regardless of income level.
Researchers have also found that people who commit suicide are eight times more likely to be in debt than those who aren’t and that alcohol or drug abuse is a notable problem in those with financial problems, which then become worse thanks to their addiction spending.
There are plenty of negative feelings that are associated with being in debt, no matter how much the dollar amount is. Whether you’re one of the 35% of Americans who has debts in collections or not, knowing that you owe someone money is a constant source of stress and anxiety.
Getting stuck in a retail therapy cycle
When you’re already feeling down, spending a little cash on a pick-me-up can be the bright spot on an otherwise rainy day. There’s a reason that someone coined the phrase “retail therapy.” But it’s a dangerous game to play, especially if you’re already concerned about your finances. Various mental health problems like depression or bipolar disorder can put you in a mindset where you make impulsive decisions, and that includes spending money that you don’t have.
It’s also unhealthy to rely on these kinds of external validating factors to make yourself feel better. Excessive spending can trigger feelings of guilt and shame around money, which can lead to problems like not checking your bank balance frequently for fear of what you’ll find or catching yourself in a web of lies to stop a partner or family member from finding out how much you’ve been splurging.
Recognizing these behaviors in yourself is one of the first steps towards financial freedom, which can only be done when you understand how your mental health is impacting the spending decisions that you make.
What about self-employment?
Working for yourself brings a whole new level of meaning to the money that you earn. Ask any freelancer or business owner and they’ll tell you that your income suddenly feels incredibly personal.
This can definitely be a positive. All that money sitting in your account was made with your own hands, from start to finish. But it also means that you can attach too much value to what you earn and how you make your money.
While self-employment brings with it the opportunity to explore any career path that you’d like, there’s also no plan mapped out for you—no corporate ladder to climb. If you made less this month than you did in the last or you lost a high-paying client, your feelings around your self-worth can really take a hit. Panic sets in and you wonder if you’re ever going to make another penny again.
Especially when you’re a one-person business, you’re the face of the brand and the one who does all of the work. Tying up how you view yourself as a person in what you do for work is already a trap that looms for anyone between the ages of 18 and 70 (how many of us start small talk conversations with, “So, what do you do?”). But when you’re working hard each day to build something of your own, it’s so much easier to fall into that trap.
Regardless of what you do and how long you’ve been working for yourself, it’s important to remember that you are so much more than your business. Need some reassurance? Ask your nearest and dearest what it is that they love about you. It feels a little cheesy, sure, but you’ll come away from those conversations with a renewed sense of who you are that isn’t attached to how you earn a living.
There is hope on the horizon
Talking about money and mental health can be a challenge when they’re both still considered to be taboo topics. But having those difficult conversations is the only way to break the cycle to get your finances back on track and address your mental health needs.
If you’re struggling with overspending, tell someone that you trust who can help you to find the support that you need. There are a few quick ways that you can adjust your behavior too, to make it more difficult to spend money or be tempted into an unnecessary purchase. Think about removing shopping apps from your phone so that they aren't just a click away, unsubscribing from brand emails, setting yourself spending limits each day or week, or delaying purchases over a certain value for at least a month.
Building buffers where you can is also a great strategy for dealing with both financial and mental health issues. Start working toward saving an emergency fund that can cover unanticipated expenses or acts as a safety net if you should lose your job unexpectedly. Taking out insurance policies to cover your income if you become sick or injured, especially if you’re a freelancer, can also be a helpful way to protect yourself and your earnings.
When it comes to your mental health, counseling or therapy can help you to identify your anxiety triggers and arm you with tools and techniques to avoid distressing situations or redirect your attention to something more positive. Working with an experienced professional may be a small financial investment (always check with your medical insurance provider to see what they’ll cover), but the outcome could mean the difference between a life of freedom or continuing down the same stress-inducing road.
Moving toward financial and mental wellness
Feeling out of control and like you’ll be stuck in a pattern of debt and anxiety forever doesn’t have to be your reality.
As with most problems in life, the best way to address them is directly and with purpose. Keep your goals in mind and slowly but surely, you’ll find yourself looking at a brighter future with less stress and more money in the bank.